Reshuffling the Renaissance Roster
When we think of Renaissance literature we think of prodigious poets and playwrights the likes of Shakespeare, Marlow and Racine or illustrious Italian masters such as Dante, Boccaccio, or Tasso. These names have become so familiar to us that to encounter them side by side such strange-sounding monikers as Vitsentzos Kornaros or Georgios Hortatzis is likely to cause a dribble of indignation.
Sure enough, the Cretan Renaissance that gave birth to these sleeping giants was a belated occurrence, but if you think about it – so were Shakespeare and Marlow. Italy had already been reveling in its revival of the arts and sciences for about a couple of centuries, when in the mid-17th century the island of Crete, a de facto colony of the Italian Republic of Venice, followed in its master’s footsteps.
As you can imagine, neither of the poets and playwrights that flourished on that dry, rocky island was nursed solely on local air. They were all deeply influenced by the new and exciting ideas of humanism, imported on the island by the Venetian colonizers along with other fineries of early-modern life such as high fashion and a nascent spirit of liberte. The resulting creolization of this southern Mediterranean strip of land is a true forerunner of the cultural back-and-forth that would only accelerate as modernity progressed on its winding course.
The gist of it
Set in an imaginary ancient past Erotokritos dramatizes the passion and ordeals of two adolescent lovers, who because they belong to vastly different casts – Aretousa is the illustrious daughter of the king of Athens, and Rotokritos the “poor” son of one of his advisors – cannot live out their affair openly. Instead, they are forced to hide first from themselves and then from others, with the only two people in on them being the boy’s best friend and the girl’s nurse.
Rotokritos, like Romeo in the first act of Shakespeare’s play, is persuaded by his friend to attempt to find a substitute for his love. They travel abroad but as they return the young man discovers he is even more hot and heavy for the king’s daughter. Despite the warnings of his friend of the perils of such foolish capering, a masked Rotokritos takes to serenading Aretousa every night under her bedchamber. The voice of this young man is so pleasant and mellifluous that he enraptures the whole palace with his singing and causes the princess to fall head over heels for him.
Out of curiosity or some other fancy, the king tries to find out the mystery singer’s identity, resulting in Rotokritos and his friend getting into a serious altercation with the night watch. In it, the young lover is first given an opportunity to show his mettle, which will later elevate him to almost epic hero status.
Love grows in the two callous hearts and brings with it the agony of unfulfilled desire. At first, Aretousa and Rotokritos both desperately cling to normality by taking to their socially sanctioned, in respect of their gender and status, of course, pastimes – hunting for the boy and needlework for the girl. But they grow more and more restless.
After a visit to Rotokritos’ house on an unrelated errand Aretousa discovers in his room her portrait and the songs she has grown to like so much. Convinced that she’s discovered the identity of the singer she sends Rotokritos apples – a hint of romantic interest. Following this their secret trysts at the bedchamber window begin.
After Rotokritos’ spectacular win at a jousting tournament held by Aretousa’s father, the princess manages to convince the young hotshot of legitimizing their relationship by having their fathers negotiate an engagement. This proves a disastrous decision – Rotokritos is exiled and his father falls out of grace at court.
From this point on begins the true quest of the hero. Like Gawain in “Gawain and the Green Knight” he plods through wild and perilous terrain and endures, nay flaunts, the fury of nature. The harrowing experience of exile is played out for us in real-time.
In the meantime, the king plans to marry off his daughter to the prince of Byzantium. To his surprise, and probably to that of pretty much every one of the original readers of the novel, the girl stoutly refuses. The king then turns into a vicious animal, not literally, but he does beat, humiliate and imprison his daughter along with the nurse. As the girl justly remarks this deed is something more beastly than even the bearing of wild things in the forest.
Not long after that, the king is forced to pay for his cruelty when a dispute with a neighboring kingdom over a piece of land turns bloody. In the nick of time, as the outnumbered king of Athens contemplates defeat and vassalage, a valiant stranger mounts a deadly series of night raids against his enemies and eventually succeeds in evening out the tides of battle. This is, of course, our protagonist, Rotokritos, who with the help of a magic ointment has completely altered his appearance.
In the end, it is he who defeats the opposing army’s champion in single combat, determining the outcome of the war. Mortally wounded, Rotokritos does not rush to reveal himself. Instead, he devises a series of tests for Aretousa’s loyalty, which end up almost killing the girl. In true fairytale manner, the two are joined in marriage, the old king abdicates in favor of his son-in-law, who happily takes the position of king of Athens and they all live happily ever after.
So what is it about?
It might seem self-evident, but love is indeed the central theme of the novel. The two lovers, Aretousa and Rotokritos, are a unique pair, however. They are far more rounded characters than the rather sketchy Romeo and Juliet and their relationship isn’t anything like the disembodied affair of Dante and Beatrice, but a far more worldly affair. Hindered by stifling social conventions, their love ultimately topples authority and erects a new order.
The question implicit in the novel’s central drama – the inability of Rotokritos to marry Aretousa because of their different social positions – is: does superior birth really translate to superior character; should Rotokritos in other words give up his affection just because he is of lower birth or is he nonetheless made worthy of the princess by virtue of his chivalric deeds? We encounter this question in many early-modern texts – characteristically in the English context, on numerous occasions in Chaucer’s Tales.
It should be noted that, though it does put some strain on the social conventions of its time, the novel doesn’t go very far in subverting them. Aretousa might be the most outspoken lyrical lady in Renaissance literature, with 29% of the book’s dialogue coming out of her rosy lips (compare Romeo’s appeal to Juliet to “speak again”), and a female hero in the image of true and tested knights like Gawain or her own Rotokritos, yet she barely leaves the confines of her father’s castle.
Aretousa really is the star of her own show, but Rotokritos is not half-bad himself. Though slightly more conventional in his heroic bravado, he nonetheless is a fraught personage, who does occasionally stray from courtoisie (like when he teases Aretousa out of her mind at the end of the novel).
The natural world, though a source of infinite inspiration it seems for the poet and portentous omens for his characters, is subject to much the same domination by the all-powerful (male) hunter, soldier, king. The violence effected by the male authority on the female body carries over, as it so often does, to nature as well.
Another feature of the story that becomes immediately apparent is the historic and geographic jumble that serves as its background. There are ancient Athenians, Byzantine princes, Saracens, Franks, jousting tournaments and courtly intrigues all crammed into the same undefinable chronotope. As other critics have noted there is nothing frivolous or sloppy in this mixing of different cultural and historic elements, however. It’s purposefully made so as to construct an ideal poetic space, in which the events of Aretousa and Rotokritos’ love can play out. Erotokritos is essentially a fairytale world, peopled by flashy, polished characters and idealized, totalizing emotions. Yet there is a very subtle irony at play as well. The poet occasionally pops his head into the narrative to give a sly comment or address one of his characters directly, attempting to steer him in the right direction, but always to comedic no-avail.
The poetic language is certainly the biggest innovation of the book. It’s an explosion of images and colors, a treasure trove of metaphors and imagery plucked as much from the daily life of the islanders as from the glamorous world of Greek mythology. An expressive, dynamic, and yet surprisingly unified and consistent amalgam of Medieval vernacular Greek and the Cretan dialect, Kornaros’ idiolect is not a language of puns or clever wordplay such as one finds in Shakespeare or Rabelais, but rather a musico-poetic device of extraordinary beauty. The rhyming is fairly simple, each line consists of 15 syllables and rhymes with the following one. There are many repetitions, but like the repeating patterns of a musical composition it is these which give rise to much of the dramatic energy of the work.
Erotokritos reads like a medieval romance but it is much more. You will be hard-pressed to find a more genre-bending composition in the Renaissance literature of Europe. Scholars have long praised Racine and Shakespeare for their mixing of tragedy and comedy, but here we have something on a completely different scale. There are extended smiles and repetitions typical of epic poetry. As a matter of fact, for much of its philological history Erotokritos has been read as an epic. The plot and characters are, however, taken directly from a medieval romance – The Paris et Vienne. Additionally, the text is preoccupied with time throughout, a typical feature of novels. As an external force, it is responsible for the psychological development of the characters; as an internal element of the story, it plays the role of a kind of humanistic counterbalance to the medieval conception of fate negating free will. But that’s not even half of it. On the one hand, we have dialogues running for pages that serve to develop character and move the plot forward, elaborate descriptions of costumes that “set the scene” as it were for a quasi-theatrical experience, parallels with actual theatrical works by Cretan contemporaries and so on; while on the other, a strong ekphrastic impulse that invests heraldic emblems with sublime significance and a style that at times seems to describe everything as a kind of emblem is paired with exquisite illustrations, which in the last 30 or so pages of the work interrupt the text so frequently that the whole work turns into a kind of early-modern graphic novel (if such a thing even exists).
Finally, the cultural others of the story are treated with reverence, no lesser than that shown by Dante when he made room for women and Arab philosophers in his Limbo-pantheon of great names of the Western tradition. Rotokritos is helped by an old woman, who like the magician in the Franklin’s Tale possesses the power of illusion and can make the sky disappear at will. Then he himself dons the appearance of a stranger (and a dark-skinned one at that) and returns to Athens. Only because of his disguise is he able to achieve his quest – he becomes unrecognizable and can aid the Athenians without provoking the wrath of the already highly distraught king. Cultural otherness thus becomes a crucial strength of the hero if but for a moment.
Naturally arising from the theme of cultural otherness are those other all so modern discourses of travel and exile. David Holton writes: “The poem is basically concerned with the interaction of wills and emotions, and a development towards tolerance, harmony and understanding. The quest of Rotokritos is for personal fulfilment and the place in society for which his virtues and abilities fit him. His spiritual state is very much that of Renaissance man, the exile seeking to return to his intellectual homeland, to be reunited with the classical genius. A sense of exile is necessary before the synthesis can be achieved. It is only by becoming an exile that Rotokritos can be integrated in his society.”
It is for this and many other pertinent ideas, germane innovations and surprising quirks that Erotokritos, though so seemingly cut off from its own time in terms of structure and content, is actually so well at home among the great works of Renaissance literature. And it is this that continues to inspire artists and readers to pick up that slim tome of incandescent genius.
The selection I have prepared here constitutes the emotional center of the poem: the moment Rotokritos bids farewell to his beloved. His speech was not long ago performed on stage by Yiannis Haroulis to a chanting crowd of hundreds of young people. The performance has since then become somewhat of a hit, passing 23 million views on YouTube. In my translation, I have retained the original 15-syllable line and the ab rhyming pattern, two of the features that give the text its extraordinary musicality.